The status of Ireland's harbour seal Phoca vitulina vitulina population is poorly understood. The most recent national population estimate dates back to the breeding season in 1978 and did not cover the entire coastline. Reliable up-to-date information on the abundance and distribution of harbour seals in Ireland is necessary to assess the conservation status of the species and for the effective identification, management and monitoring of special areas of conservation required for harbour seals under the EU Habitats Directive. To provide comprehensive current information on Ireland's harbour seal population, a geographically extensive survey was conducted along the coastline of the Republic of Ireland during the species' annual moult in August 2003. This complemented a similar survey of Northern Ireland, which was conducted in 2002. Using thermal imaging technology, haul-out groups of harbour seals and grey seals Halichoerus grypus were identified from the air, aerial-counts were obtained and compared with simultaneous ground-count data from selected sites. Harbour seal distribution recorded during the 2003 moult season was concentrated in the south-west, west and north-west of the country. This national survey yielded a minimum population estimate for the Republic of Ireland of 2905 harbour seals, delivering an effective baseline for current and future population research.